March 16, 2015

Millennials are getting a bad rap as a newsless and disengaged generation, according to a new study of their news habits. But print newspapers and digital home pages are not their main way of finding what they are looking for.

Rather social media and search are the two top avenues for finding news, according to a report released today by the American Press Institute, Associated Press and NORC center at the University of Chicago.  Facebook is the top way of encountering news, used by 88 percent of those who do.

Eighty-five percent of 1,000 millennials surveyed said that news is at least somewhat important to them. News is their third top digital activity after e-mail and check of weather and traffic. Games and keeping up with friends came in fourth and fifth.

Sixty-nine percent check news at least once a day, and 49 percent do so several time a day.  Forty percent themselves pay for some form of news, and 57 percent said they follow at least four hard news topics.

You Tube and Instagram were also popular ways to access news, used by a majority of those surveyed. The study found some dissatisfaction with Facebook, especially among the youngest of the cohort.

Predictably, too, millennials tend to consume news episodically through the day as they check their smart phones as opposed to sustained sessions like older readers.

The findings are to be presented today in Nashville at the annual mediaXchange conference of the Newspaper Assocation of America, Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, told me that the implications for newspaper organization executives are mixed.

Most of the 18 to 34-year-olds “will not age into print….Most will never see your homepage,”  he said. On the other hand, the social and search companies are not themselves news producers.

So the best strategy, Rosenstiel said, “is to accept these as gateways,” and deliver high-quality branded content when they arrive (preferably optimized for smart phones).  Winning audience should come first, monetization later.

A separate API study has recommended that newspaper organizations identify as a few “franchise topics” of particular local interest and provide heavy coverage of those.

Another recommendation is to tailor social media communication to the particular strengths of a given platform — Twitter for influentials and serious news followers, Instagram for photos, and Pinterest for hobbies.

The research included focus group discussions, which uncovered a preference among the millennials for multiple viewpoints and some disdain for clickbait frivolity:

One theme we heard was a desire that the crowded media marketplace would calm down, and that there would be less fear mongering — which interestingly is a theme scholars have identified in the digital landscape. “I’d like if the media in the next five years is actually stripped down and is more factual as opposed to sensationalized,” said Marwa, age 25 in Chicago. “I feel like the news creates so much drama for us, it creates so much fear instead of just saying, ‘okay, this is what happened.’”

Similarly, there were complaints about the negative frame of many stories, a sense that good news, like a falling crime rate, did not get equal attention.

Another theme we heard is a desire for the news media to be more of an arbiter of truthfulness and not just a carrier of potentially polarizing rhetoric or alarming allegations.

And millennials would welcome a few more voices of their own generation as reporters and commentators.

To my mind, the study seemed a little light on gauging the millennials’ appetite for local news compared to topics like national politics, sports and social issues.  For local publishers, it remains a tough call whether to go all in for their strengths covering the community or to cater, as well, to some of the broader interests of the millennials — and older readers too.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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